Prince George's state Del. Thomas J. Mooney says the seven days since last Tuesday's Democratic primary have been like a page out of Kafka's "The Trial."

"Yes, that's it," said Mooney, plucking from an ever-ready store of similes. "I felt like Joseph K in 'The Trial.' He felt the impending doom but he wasn't sure where it was coming from or why it was there . . . I've been in politics long enough to know when something was going on." It was, he added later, "like being on death row and watching them build the gallows."

Seven days ago, Mooney thought he had won his race to keep his House of Delegates seat. According to a preliminary count by the elections board, he had a 21-vote victory over newcomer John d'Eustachio. Then, as the county's absentee ballots were tallied over three days, that edge gave way to defeat -- by a single vote.

Although Mooney says an "unnamed source" close to the elections board has told him he is back on top by eight votes because of a tabulation error, the board will not certify the election results until Thursday, leaving the candidates to wait and worry.

"It's been an incredibly tense, tension-filled roller coaster," said John d'Eustachio, who is back teaching high school math every day while his wife, Loretta, takes his place in the elections board counting room. "It's been a seven-day election . . . . It doesn't lead to a great many sleep-filled nights, I can tell you. But it does make for great conversation at 6 a.m.: 'Are you asleep?' 'No.' 'Are you asleep?' 'No.' "

Theirs was one of the tightest races in the county's primary election last week. The results in another race, for the state Senate seat in the shared Prince George's-Howard County district, apparently were reversed by the absentee ballot count also, but the difference between winner Thomas Yeager and loser Kay Bienen was about two dozen votes.

The Mooney-d'Eustachio contest was expected to be close in a district with 12 hard-working candidates -- three incumbents and two separate slates among them -- vying for three delegates seats. But none of the candidates expected a race to be settled by the neighbor who promised to vote and didn't, and the friend who meant to send in a change of address and forgot.

Mooney has hired a lawyer "for a mighty sum," he said, and vows to fight the results all the way to a recount or new election.

The d'Eustachios are taking a slightly more philosophical view. "It's been a killer all right," said Loretta d'Eustachio, who has worked almost as hard as her candidate husband. "John doesn't quite see the humor in it yet because he's put so much time into it, but, if you think about it, it's kind of comical."